The 51st shade of grey.
It’s almost silly to say, but the internet is changing how we relate to one another. Perhaps less talked about is that it’s changing orbiting concerns, like psychology. It used to be that part of a diagnosis turned on the question of how outside the mainstream a particular belief was. If you thought little blue men were responsible for stealing the beer from your fridge to enslave the mole people who keep the lights on, one of the ways we know you’re a loon is that no one else knows or cares about the little blue men or the mole people. But thanks to the internet, we’re seeing “fringe” ideas get reinforced in the digital echo chamber, and suddenly belief in little blue men doesn’t feel weird anymore because another couple dozen people around the world sustain the illusion. On the flip side, the internet also reveals what used to be hidden. We didn’t discover whips and chains in the wake of 50 Shades of Grey, but the internet makes it easier to find other people into the same sexual activities. And it also makes it easier to find boutique pornography. Kink.com is the largest purveyor of BDSM content on the internet, and Kink is an 80 minute exploration of their business model, from their multi-floor shooting space to the talent they utilize in front of and behind the camera. It’s a bit too surface level to be a classic documentary, but may help introduce some viewers into the world of BDSM and BDSM pornography.
Kink.com specializes in BDSM (Bondage, Discipline/Sadism, Masochism for the vanilla types), and they produce a wealth of content from their multi-story building in San Francisco. Their goal, however, is to both reflect the world of 21st century digital culture and the best of the BDSM world. Outside of pornography, BDSM prides itself on being “safe, sane, and consensual” sexual play where people engage in various roles for sexual pleasure. Kink turns a camera on these people as they perform these, sometimes elaborate, rituals. They might include everything from significant rope bondage to being penetrated by a sex toy attached to a machine. All along the way, the people behind Kink.com hope to keep the process open and communicative for all parties in an attempt to create an ethical pornographic product. Kink gives us a fly-on-the-wall view of the operation, starting with a tour of the facilities before talking to several of the people behind the project, as well as the talent involved in front of the camera. We watch as shoots are prepped, and see performers before and after their scenes. It all adds up to a portrait of the company that makes them look good, but feels fluffy.
One of the things that’s interesting about Kink.com is their insistence on the safety and comfort of their performers despite the fact that they’re being put in very stressful situations. Safe words are communicated, and everyone on board is given significant prep. Part of the reason for this may be an ethical stance that the filmmakers take. But it also feels like a stall against the fact that it would be very, very easy to feel terrible watching a woman get hogtied and then whipped while being called names. To head that particular problem off at the proverbial pass, Kink.com often includes interviews with their subjects after their scene, where they discuss what it was like for everyone involved. It tells the viewer that everything worked out okay even if the performer screamed or cried during the scene itself. Whatever the veracity of these moments, they act as an extension of the Kink.com brand, showing viewers that the performers are well taken care of and shouldn’t feel bad about consuming this work.
The problem with Kink is that it feels like an extension of those after-scene interviews. This doesn’t feel like an objective documentary about a particular porn company. Instead, it feels like an extension of that company’s branding into the world of documentary film. I can totally understand why no one in the BDSM world would want a negative portrayal given how “weird” it is for most people. However, there’s a huge difference between producing a positive but balanced documentary and creating marketing materials for a company. Those in the world of kink will find the film a bit too light on the detail, while those outside the life might get an unnecessarily rosy look at the process.
I should mention, of course, that Kink doesn’t shy away from showing us what a Kink.com scene looks like. So, expect nudity, bondage, strong language, etc. The film doesn’t linger particularly long on any one scene, but there’s enough here to shock those not used to the more extreme side of sexual expression.
Where the film doesn’t fall down, however, is in its portrayal of the inner workings of the studio as a studio. Vertical integration … where Golden Age Hollywood studios owned the production, distribution, and exhibition of films … was abolished decades ago for typical narrative films. Kink.com (and a lot of porn in general), however, uses the same basic processes that worked so well for the studios in Hollywood. They have their stars (though not as contractually bound as Hollywood stars, in general), they own the means of production (including the building, the cameras, the kink equipment), and they control distribution/exhibition via their various web sites. As a document of the labor practices of a modern-day studio, Kink excels at showing us all the labor that goes into making a shoot work. Those looking to get into pornography as a business could definitely benefit from watching this film.
The DVD itself isn’t bad. The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer is fine for the source material. Since it’s shot fly-on-the-wall, the image can be a bit wild in terms of detail and sharpness. But interview material with a static camera looks clean and sharp. Artifacting isn’t a problem, but it’s not a gorgeous film. The film’s stereo audio is likewise as good as the source. For interviews it sounds fine, but some location sound can get a bit spotty. Don’t expect a lot of stereo imaging or anything. Sadly, the only extra is the film’s trailer.
Kink is a weird documentary. It’s probably a bit extreme for those completely unused to the world of BDSM, and a bit light or fluffy to those more versed in the ways of the lifestyle. A few featurettes or a commentary might have helped create a bridge between these viewerships. As it is, Kink plays more like an extended advertisement for Kink.com than a stand-alone documentary worthy of our attention.